On his first day of college, Stephen DePalma ’72 and his classmates received blunt words about their daunting engineering curriculum from then-President Robert Van Houten, clearly intended as a form of “no nonsense” motivation: “Look to your left and look to your right – one of those people will not be there at graduation.”
“Sink or swim – that was the standard then,” recounts De Palma. He decidedly swam, going on after graduation to help build Schoor DePalma Inc., an engineering firm that reshaped – yes, literally – the New Jersey landscape. He attributes his success in navigating those turbulent waters as a green 18-year-old to his own determination, the organizational skills he quickly acquired and the support so readily offered by his fraternity brothers at Pi Kappa Phi.
There was Ted Cassera ’72, for example, who introduced him to civil engineering. He jokes that he was glad he met him on “the second day of college.”
“Ted did surveying on the weekends to make extra money and invited me along. It was interesting work – and outdoors – and I related to many aspects of it, from the physical to the structural. I was a mechanical engineering major at the time, which was more abstract, but I switched to civil my junior year, doubled up on courses and managed to still graduate in four years.”
And his first year out of college, another fraternity brother introduced him to Howard Schoor, who asked him: “Where do you want to be in five years?”
“I want to be at your desk, interviewing people like me,” was the bold response that helped secure the job. He spent the next five years “learning everything from management, to marketing, to finance, to solving technical problems.” The firm’s primary work was, as he puts it, “local infrastructure, the projects that affect quality of life: land development, environmental studies, water and sewer systems, traffic and transportation.”
But there were also the landscape-changing megaprojects, from the creation of a new interchange on the New Jersey Turnpike to connect shoppers to the Jersey Gardens Mall to what became known as the Atlantic City-Brigantine Connector, a 2.5-mile expressway, including a tunnel, from the Atlantic City Expressway to Steve Wynn’s Borgata casino.
The latter project brought them up against a fierce competitor who tried to stop it – Donald J. Trump. The expressway builders prevailed, however, “and I think everyone benefited,” DePalma recounts.
He clearly made a dent at the firm, as it was renamed “Schoor DePalma Inc.” just a few years after he arrived. As CEO for 15 years, revenue grew tenfold and the firm was recognized by Engineering News Record as among the “Top 40 Largest USA Engineering Design Firms.” By the time he retired as chairman and CEO in 2007, the firm employed more than 1,250 employees in 25 multi-state offices. He now runs his own engineering consulting group.
DePalma was such an adept manager that he was recruited by about a dozen state and national civic organizations for his diverse skills and willingness to plunge into high-profile projects. They include the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, the New Jersey Alliance for Action, Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity (where he served as national president and was the recipient of the Mr. Pi Kappa Phi award, the organization’s most prestigious, Ronald McDonald House, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National and New Jersey Association of Home Builders, the New Jersey League of Municipalities, the New Jersey Utility and Transportation Contractors Association, the Young Presidents Organization/World Presidents Organization (New Jersey chapter), and NJIT, where he has served on the Board of Overseers, from 1989 until 2003, and the Board of Trustees, since 2003. He is currently the chairman of the board.
DePalma’s school days clearly still resonate, as he singles out a project he took part in for the Chamber of Commerce, conducting surveys to determine what makes some schools successful at teaching STEM skills and others less so. “It comes down to the passion of the people – who are your teachers and principals,” he notes.
And he is informally known as “Mr. NJIT” for his longstanding involvement with his alma mater, which began shortly after he graduated at the behest of Herman “Doc” Estrin, a renowned professor of English, who persuaded him to come back to campus to talk to students about the real world. In April, he was honored as an NCE Outstanding Alumnus by his NJIT college, Newark College of Engineering, at its annual Salute to Engineering Excellence.
“I really enjoy creative, college-age students,” notes DePalma, of his years on the Board of Trustees, where he has once again found himself part of a hard-working, mutually supportive NJIT group. “This is such a great board that is so dedicated to the school for all the right reasons. It has been nice to see so many transformations on campus over the past 10 years, but also in the city of Newark. It has been very rewarding to be a part of it.”